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Mumbaiwale: Secretive and seductive, Mumbai’s mujra scene today

A podcast tracing Mumbai’s last mujra performers offers a precious view of an all-but-vanished world.

Updated: Sep 07, 2019 14:40 IST

By Rachel Lopez, Hindustan Times

Rekha, in her iconic role as the 1800s courtesan Umrao Jaan, with Naseeruddin Shah.

Will we ever know all of Mumbai’s secrets? Kunal Purohit has uncovered a particularly hidden one. His podcast, The Last Courtesans of Bombay, tracks down women who still practise mujra in the city, and talks to them about their lives. What results, over four episodes, is a new chapter in the oft-told story of women performers in Mumbai. Courtesans or tawaifs, Purohit says, weren’t merely nautch girls, as the West often portrayed them. “I think of them as the first feminist intellectuals in the continent,” Purohit says. “They were poets, music composers, dancers, charmers and with their access to elite men, possibly the most influential women of their time.”

That time has passed – mujra’s popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries waned after 1947. In Mumbai, high rents and bans have ended performances. The podcast is essential for anyone who thinks brothels, dance bars and kothas are interchangeable - particularly in Mumbai. There’s a lot we don’t know about their world, and of what we know, we’ve got a lot of it wrong, Purohit says.

In Devdas, Madhuri Dixit brings a mix of power and powerlessness to her role as a courtesan.

Mujra is not dead. “Most people I spoke to said Mumbai’s mujra scene long ended,” he says. “But talk to people familiar with the Kamathipura area and you’ll realise it’s still alive. Purohit worked for months to find the women. And when he found Rani, she made him wait some more to build anticipation – the oldest trick in the courtesan’s book.

Mujra is not merely dance. A courtesan’s skills cover writing poetry, composing it, singing, dancing, charm, etiquette and conversation. It’s an art form in itself. “This was one of the earliest myths shattered as I started my research,” he says. Rani, a third-generation courtesan, began her training at 11 and taught herself music. One woman read him her poems, composed in Urdu. “They were unbelievably beautiful.”

It’s not an offhand show. A tawaif honed her skills over a lifetime of riyaaz, composing work to suit changing clients and building relationships. “The women were well-off enough to choose which clients they wanted,” Purohit says.

Courtesans are not prostitutes. You bought their time and their company, not their bodies. One woman in the podcast says that it’s her job to get you to be so charmed that you keep returning. “It’s non-confrontational resistance to how women were expected to be,” he says. “The woman was submissive but still held all the reins. It was power on her terms.”

Sardari Begum showed typical mujra sessions, in which the performer was backed by a group of instrumentalists.

Women weren’t always forced into it. As with bar dancers, many joined voluntarily. “We tend to misunderstand or ignore the fact that a woman may choose to dance for a living,” Purohit says. “The only narrative you hear is of destitution. I’ve met women who don’t regret their choices.”

Bombay courtesans are different. Their clients included actors, businessmen and politicians. Many still perform in the homes of the elite at birthdays or other celebrations. “There’s a persistent anecdote that the gangster Hajji Mastan once spent an evening at a mujra, got drunk and stumbled out into the street only to be beaten up by local boys who didn’t recognise him,” says Purohit.

The lines are blurry but they’re still there. Mujra calls for dancing, but it is no longer the draw – looks are. One podcast episode features 25-year-old Zoya, daughter of a courtesan, whose world is different from her mother’s. It’s more hustle than cultural extravaganza. “We’re lined up and the man chooses who will perform for him” she says. There are private performances for big spenders. “The policy is not to touch,” Zoya says. “But women fear they’ll lose a customer to another dancer so they tend to not report any violations.”

They’re funny. Zoya reveals that when she’s bored of meeting a client, she often sends her twin sister instead– one of the last rebellions in the community’s fight for survival.

They won’t give up their secrets. Memoirs and poems have long been published in Urdu. But newer poems haven’t been recorded at all. “One woman told me that a film composer once dropped in for a performance, and later, she discovered that he’d plagiarised her poems for a popular song. They’re wary of sharing the last of what’s left.”

Listen to the first of four episodes here.

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